Saturday, 26 July 2008


In a week that has seen various assaults by the Taffia on what I laughingly call my talents, it was a relief that something I wrote was the source of universal approval. My Hug a Hoodie piece seems to have found a happier response than the opportunist Cameron’s earlier exhortation.

A friend, who is not known for hugging anyone who wasn’t born in Ulster, suggests I should be Prime Minister. Another suggested I could teach the Home Secretary a thing or two.

I have to tell the truth. I owe it all to an illiterate Regimental Sergeant Major. An Irish Guardsman called Kenny.

In 1948 I was a Public Relations sergeant returned to regimental duties because of persistent drunkenness and insubordination on the Airlift. The RSM of my new unit, HQ 7th Armoured Division at Celle in Germany, thought PR must have something to do with Provost so appointed me Provost Sergeant

By this time I had ceased to take the army seriously and resolved to introduce an atmosphere of high comedy.

My first mistake was to sack all my regimental policemen. I replaced them with members of Highland regiments, who abound as orderlies in HQs. I had not realised the reason they abound is that so many have been thrown out of their battalions, as I had, following courts martial offences.

My second mistake was to order the new policemen to send off to their regiments for kilts, which, within a month, re-appeared on the German black market.

My policemen were more dishonest than my prisoners.

Years later in civilian life I had a touching reunion with one of them when I walked out of my office on the Mirror in Manchester and found him trying to break into my car. He had the grace to apologise. He said: “I didn’t know it was your car, sergeant.”

I also had a kind of reunion with one of my regular prisoners, Private Hardisty.

I have always been obsessed with the Black Watch (RHR), an obsession I must admit the Black Watch does not share. So eloquent was I that Hardisty, who came from the Bull Ring in Leeds, vowed he was going “to soldier”, as the quaint phrase had it. When he got out of my guard room he was going to volunteer for the Highland Division.

I was on demob leave when I opened my Daily Express to see his evil face glaring out at me. He had lasted in the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders for a month before being thrown out as “undesirable”. He was posted to Berlin, where power was shared with the Americans and the Russians. The Red Army at the time had agents provocateurs touring Berlin bars urging disaffected Allied soldiers to defect with the promise of 24 hour vodka and unlimited sex.

When I read that they had got Hardisty I knew the communist threat was over. The system was doomed.

The Daily Express recounted how alone of all the disaffected soldiery Hardisty was the only one the Russians ever gave back. With, I imagine, collective sighs of relief.

My favourite prisoner was a private soldier called Maplestone. He was one of those unfortunates whose well meaning efforts always landed him in trouble. I was very fond of him and used to give him pleasant jobs when he was in the guard room.

One was to paint the white boundary stones which were placed on either side of the main road through the camp. Panicking at an approaching party of officers, he dropped the paint and prepared to salute. Unfortunately the party spilt. Some officers went to one side of the road, some the other.

As they approached, Maplestone was struck with blind panic and walked through the party saluting with both hands. The officers got into a huff, thought he was being insubordinate and put him on a charge.

Having been banged up myself, I had great sympathy with my prisoners. I introduced a system where they could have a night out in the town, as long as they were accompanied by a regimental policeman whose beer they were required to buy.

It was a great success. Not a single prisoner let me down. To a man they were back in camp before midnight. The regimental policemen, alas, were not so punctilious. Though, in fairness, they were usually back by the weekend.

The least belligerent of men, I have always found my friends amongst life’s Hard Men. In truth I have preferred them to the law abiding.
So much easier to deal with and, in an odd way, more honourable. All you have to do is make them laugh. It disarms them in a minute

Alas, it did not work the night a disaffected soldier set fire to the Headquarters.

The soldier, an acting sergeant, had been posted to the HQ to discover he had dropped a rank in favour of a friend of the department in which he was to serve.

Late one night he returned to his barrack room and told a fellow corporal, “I have just set fire to the barracks.”

“The RSM won’t like that,” the other corporal replied.

“Too bloody true he won’t,” the arsonist told him. “I have locked him in Q Block.”

It reflects no credit on the Unit Fire Service that when they were at last deployed they saw the RSM gesturing frantically at an office window and knocked him over several times with a well directed hose.

Against my advice, the Orderly Officer not only turned out the guard: he insisted on turning out my Regimental Police. He was not to know that the policeman he detailed to direct the civilian Celle fire engines was probably the only Gordon Highlander who was an IRA sympathiser and promptly directed them out of the back gate.

I have no doubt the officer’s intentions were good when he ordered my MPs to detain any civilians they found near the camp. Some irate night workers were brought in from a bus stop which was over half a mile from the camp gates

Within minutes my guard room was filled with outraged citizens and it wasn’t easy to control them since three of my policemen went absent, never to return.

I am afraid I was a failure in every department and in many ways it was a relief to lose a stripe and the job in consequence of being very rude to the RSM. I blush to admit he lusted after me and when his overtures failed, turned nasty. To be honest, as a practising heterosexual I wasn’t sure what he was talking about. But there was no doubt about his desire for revenge.

When I was demobbed I kept my regimental issue kilt and handed in to the Quartermaster a kilt my mother had bought from a small ad in the Manchester Evening News.

I thought I was safe enough because the nearest battalion of my regiment was across Germany in Duisburg.

Alas, the RSM searched until he found a passing Black Watch (RHR) officer on Celle station whom he called on to identify the kilt. Trying to save me, the officer insisted it was “issue”.

“When was it issued?” asked the RSM.

“Judging by the regimental number, 1917,” the officer admitted.


I did my first published interview on VE Day in 1945. .For the next half century scarcely a day passed when I didn’t do one - for radio, TV, newspapers. My books are extended interviews with people, or other books.

But it took me forty years to become an interviewer. I have recounted how. I fell asleep in the middle of an interview for a Radio 4 series and how for the first and only time in my life the office was inundated with letters praising my interviewing technique. “At last,” they all said, “an interviewer who isn’t for ever interrupting.

Received radio wisdom is that answers should be kept short. Otherwise listeners get bored.


Interview questions should be spurs in the flank of monologues. The interviewer is the jockey - a sort of horseman of the puckered lip. If you can see him, even in your mind’s eye, he has failed.

On Radio Wales, Vincent Kane was a superlative interviewer. He left space for answers. So did a man called Gerry Monte, and a few others like Michael Parkinson, Libby Purves, Edward Lustig and quirky Ray Gosling. I am afraid Jonathon Ross does not qualify in any respect as an interviewer.

Nevertheless, his style of knockabout comedy is thought to be the matrix.

The interviewer is the star. His questions swirl like a matador’s red cape as he taunts the bull in a suit of too bright lights.........I do sometimes wish they could fall asleep and give the other chap a chance.

We don’t get interviews. We get cross talk acts between John Humphrys and various elephantine politicians, even crosser talk acts between Paxman’s eyebrows and more politicians. But they never seem to elicit any information. The interviewee simply ignores the question.

I wonder if the broadcast media is right to concentrate almost exclusively on politics. I know it is a cheap way to fill air time. but I don’t know anyone who listens enthralled.

Perhaps I am also wrong in believing that interviewing should not be part of the entertainment industry, which it plainly has become.

I would have thought that if satellite news bulletins and “barely live five” proved anything, they prove there isn’t enough news about (or news they can afford to get) to nourish a rolling news coverage.

The reason the first popular papers included features is there wasn’t enough news to fill a paper. In the old days BBC announcers would sometimes come on, announce the nine o’clock news and say, “There is no news today. Goodnight.”

News is just another fix. We are used to getting it at stated times, like the six o’clock gin of happy memory; and we think we cannot do without it.

Even more depressing, we copy the Oompah Whimpering show where you manufacture news by bringing together stage villains or antagonists and inviting them to fight whilst the audience boos and cheers.



At a time when our unlucky Prime Minister shows the common touch by holidaying in the British Seaside at a £4,000 a week guest house, it is worth recalling Matthew Parris writing in the Times on his predecessor.

“John Smith died at precisely the right moment for Mr Blair’s career. Then the Tory Party imploded. He inherited a strong and strengthening economy. The recession which would have smashed all his reckless election pledges never came. Potential rivals faltered or were undone. He squeaked through his referendum on the Welsh Assembly. The single currency bandwagon hit the kerb before he had time to climb aboard. The crazy campaign in Kosovo was saved when Milosevic buckled. How much longer can this guy’s luck hold?”